ECOWAS Community Court will on the 30th November 2017, make a decision on a
case between the Federation of African Journalists (FAJ) and the Republic of
The case was filed by FAJ as the leading representative body for journalists in Africa, and being the African Chapter of the International Federation of Journalists - the world’s largest organisation of journalists and four other Gambian journalists in exile.
The federation has been acting on behalf of Gambian journalists, and they have filed this case since the 7th July 2017. Among many other things, Federation of the African Journalists decried the continued maintenance by The Gambia, in its criminal laws, of those provisions which violate human rights of journalists.
Former reporter of The Independent Newspaper Lamin Fatty, presidential spokesperson and journalist Fatou Camara, US-based journalist Fatou Jaw Manneh and Daily Observer’s Alhagie Jobe, with backing of the Federation, submitted that The Gambia has failed to provide a safe and conducive atmosphere for the practice of journalism, as it is required.
The plaintiffs argued that there is either “a concerted campaign of mistreatment and persecution of journalists, or a climate of impunity in which mistreatment of journalists is allowed to occur.”
London-based Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI), a non-governmental organisation established in 2008 to provide legal assistance to journalists (including bloggers) and independent media, with a global network of media lawyers and media freedom activists represented the plaintiffs.
The submission before the court outlines murders, disappearances, physical attacks, tortures, false imprisonments, among other forms of violations against journalists in The Gambia. FAJ, which comprises all press unions of the Africa, said the continued maintenance of various legal provisions in Gambia law books prevented journalists from returning to The Gambia for fear that further action will be taken against them by the state authorities in breach of their human rights.
Jonathan McCully, senior legal counsel at the MLDI said they hope that ECOWAS Court will recognise that The Gambia’s laws on sedition, false news and criminal defamation violates the rights to freedom of expression under international law.
“Under Jammeh’s regime, these laws had been used to arrest, detain, charge and prosecute journalists who were critical of the regime. While in detention, journalists were often ill-treated and even subjected to torture. This created a climate of fear in the country, resulting in over 110 journalists fleeing into exile while those who remained could not carry out their job,” McCully said to The Point in an interview.
However, a positive judgment from the ECOWAS Court would set “a crucially important precedent” for Gambian journalists who operated under these oppressive and dangerous conditions, the legal expert said. He further argued that such a decision would also set a significant precedent for other countries in the region where such laws are still being used to impede and curtail critical journalism.
“A declaration that the actions of the Republic of The Gambia, in enforcing the statutory provisions that are the subject of this application, by means of detaining, arresting, charging, trying and/or convicting the second, third, and fourth applicants, and causing them physical, psychological, emotional and reputational injury, and thus forcing them to live in exile outside The Gambia, acted in violation of those applicants’ human rights under international law, namely the right to receive information and express and disseminate opinion,” an excerpt of the FAJ submission to the court stated.
The ECOWAS Community Court of Justice, created pursuant to the provisions of Articles 6 and 15 of the Revised Treaty of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), is mandated to ensure the observance of law and of principles of equity and in the interpretation and application of the provisions of the Revised Treaty and all other subsidiary legal instruments adopted by community.
“If the Court finds the laws on sedition, false news and criminal defamation to be in violation of the right to freedom of expression, the Gambian government will have to repeal those laws to comply with their obligations under international law,” McCully said.
The plaintiffs therefore sought an order of the court mandating and compelling the Republic of The Gambia among other things, to repeal the relevant statutory provisions immediately or otherwise amend its laws in order to meet its obligations under international law, including under the Revised ECOWAS Treaty, Charter, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
FAJ representing around 600,000 members in 134 countries, including The Gambia; Washington-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, and the UK-based Article 19 have all supported this case against The Gambia at the ECOWAS Court.
Gambia’s new government has voiced its commitment to human rights, which means this judgement will come at a critical time for the country.
“However, freedom of expression in The Gambia will continue to be impaired as long as these oppressive laws remain on the statute books. Hopefully the judgment of ECOWAS Court will help ensure that these criminal laws can never be used against Gambian journalists again,” Jonathan McCully said.